Recently released on VHS, The Sleeper is a new slasher film by local filmmaker Justin Russell. Justin created The Sleeper as an homage to a genre that peaked in popularity before he was even born: slasher films.
Slasher films are those horror films from the 1980’s where a maniac offs a group of attractive young people with a machete, or a pair of garden shears, or a shish kabob skewer.
I recently discovered The Sleeper and, at first, thought it was a lost slasher film. But it’s a new film made to look like an old film, and it was made in Springfield, Ohio by a local filmmaker named Justin Russell. Intrigued by this, I “friended” Justin on Facebook and then met him at his apartment.
“You are literally in Gamma Knife Films HQ right now,” Justin says, “You can literally see my bed from where we’re standing, my couch, my desk... All these posters that you’re looking at are original prints.”
Original posters for classics like Friday The 13th, Prom Night, and Don’t Go In The House adorn the walls of Justin’s apartment and are a not-so-subtle reminder of why we should always avoid a stranger wearing a hockey mask and carrying a nail gun. Justin’s collection of horror DVDs is vast, and includes every slasher film I’ve ever seen - and then some. Surrounded by so many celluloid nightmares, Justin was inspired to create his own.
“I was sleeping in my apartment and I looked over at my bedroom door in the middle of the night,” Justin says, “and it was open a crack. I thought, ‘I thought I shut my door,’ and I thought that would be a really great slasher movie - if somebody killed you in your sleep. So I clipped on my light and wrote that down really quick, like yeah, you know, somebody kills you in your sleep, and fell back asleep. Woke up in the morning and thought, the morning light is now coming in and it’s still a good idea so I’m going to go ahead and do it.”
Justin wrote The Sleeper in eight weeks and began production shortly thereafter in his hometown on the campus of Wittenberg University. In addition to its locations, Springfield was the perfect city for the two-week shoot for another reason: Justin’s parents catered the film.
In The Sleeper, a group of sorority sisters are methodically dispatched by a madman with an axe to grind (literally) and in true slasher film fashion, the killer prefaces each attack with a twisted telephone call.
The Sleeperwas shot with all the latest digital equipment but in post-production, Justin added optical effects to his movie - like chromatic abrasion and desaturated color grading - to give the film a dated look. Then he ran the soundtrack through a filter to mimic the low-fidelitysound associated with low budget films. Finally, Justin released The Sleeper on videocassette.
“I actually saw all these films for the first time on VHS and I use to go to the video store and think, ah man, I have to see this, this looks so terrifying and that kind of thing. You know, if I was a young twelve-year-old again would The Sleeper be something I’d want to see? Would I look at that cover and think, ‘Oh I have to see it,’ and it would,” he says.
The day I met Justin, he prepared to ship his daily orders and, in one more nostalgic detail, labeled each videocassette with a sticker that politely reminded its viewer to be kind and rewind.
“I just love putting these together for people to enjoy,” he says, “It’s a rush.”
While The Sleeper is also available on contemporary formats like video-on-demand, DVD, and a soon-to-be-released Blu-ray disc, it’s the dead format that has garnered the most enthusiasm. Justin’s heard from fans around the globe grateful for the retro horror experience he’s painstakingly produced for them and eager to experience The Sleeper on VHS.
“It’s really cool,” Justin says, “We’ve shipped all over the world. Brazil, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, UK, Philippines, Canada.”
But just as the internet and social media allow slasher film fans and lovers of VHS to find each other, it also makes piracy and theft very easy. In addition to legitimate sales, Justin sees his movie stolen online. It’s an unfortunate reality for any artist whose work is digital when peer-to-peer file sharing is commonplace.
But maybe there’s a bright side. After all, popularity - even among thieves - is never a bad thing when building a fan base and doing what you love.
“It means people are seeing the film, and what I need to do is research how I can supercharge this piracy into working for my benefit,” Justin says, “Even if I don’t make back the budget on The Sleeper, what I wanted it to afford me was the opportunity to make more films, and it has.”
For more information on Justin Russell or to purchase The Sleeper, go to www.gammaknifefilms.com.